Way out in deep space, astronomers spot precursor of carbon based life

James Webb scope finds CH3+ – aka methyl cations – without which you probably wouldn't be reading this

Astronomers wielding the James Webb Space Telescope have detected methyl cations – important precursor molecules needed to create proteins and DNA and therefore fundamental to carbon-based life forms.

The molecules were spotted 1,350 light years away in a protoplanetary disk known as d203-506, located in the Orion Nebula.

The international team of researchers believe strong UV rays emanating from young nearby stars that lie outside the system provided the energy to form the molecules. It's not clear how they were created in the disk exactly – it's possible that methane molecules (CH4) disassociated to form methyl cations and hydrogen atoms.

These types of particles are vital to kickstart the reactions to create more complex carbon based molecules that are key to supporting life as we know it, explained Olivier Berne, lead scientist of the study published in Nature on Monday, and an astrophysicist at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), to The Register.

"CH3+ can react with many molecules and form other more complex species. However, it is an early step in the process which leads to the formation of even more complex molecules which are crucial to life – like proteins and DNA. The methyl molecule also plays a crucial role in genetics: in a process called methylation, it regulates gene expression," he said.

Although scientists began speculating that the molecule was a key ingredient for organic chemistry in interstellar space in the 1970s, it has proven difficult to find. It requires a sensitive infrared detector like the NIRSpec and the MIRI instruments aboard the James Webb Space Telescope to do the job. 

"This detection not only validates the incredible sensitivity of Webb, but also confirms the postulated central importance of (CH3+) in interstellar chemistry," Marie-Aline Martin-Drumel, co-author of the paper, and a researcher at Université Paris-Saclay in France, enthused in a statement.

Finding the compounds around a protoplanetary disk – a giant hot swirling dense mass of gas and dust which forms around stars from which planets and asteroids can be born – raises questions about what precursors might be key for the development of life. Although UV radiation helps create methyl cations, it could also strip away the water needed for life as we know it.

Scientists, however, have found evidence from meteorites suggesting that the protoplanetary disk from which Earth was created was also subjected to intense UV rays – meaning it may have contained methyl cations but no water. Yet, somehow, life on Earth exists. How?

"This is an open question. It could be that some water is present in ices inside grains in those UV irradiated disks, but so far we have not been able to detect it. We will be searching for it," Berne told us. ®

Similar topics


Send us news

Other stories you might like